Final Fantasy VIII: Strangers
by Mayumi_H

Part 1: Crowded Room


"Caught you looking!"

Selphie's squeal of delight nearly made Quistis jump out of her seat. Her pale cheeks reddened to a deep blush, and she shook her head sadly.

Selphie nudged Quistis, sitting down in the open cafe seat next to her. "Admit it. Practically every girl in the Garden has been staring at him ever since he arrived."

"That statement includes you, too, you know," Quistis responded with a slight smirk.

Selphie shrugged and grinned. "I can't deny it. There's something about him. He's so mysterious. Kind of like Squall, only not as mean."

Rinoa, who had been sitting with Quistis and, up until now, had been enjoying the banter, suddenly spoke up in Squall's defense. "Squall isn't 'mean.' He's just...reserved."

Selphie laughed. "I'm just teasing." A gleam came to her green eyes. "What about you, Rinoa? Don't tell me you haven't been stealing looks at our new instructor."

Rinoa cocked her head to the side, thinking. "Well, he is very attractive. But looks aren't everything. I think we should get to know him first before making any snap judgements."

"Get to know who?"

All three women looked up to see Zell sit down beside them. He was carrying a heavily-laden tray of hot dogs in front of him, each one garnished to the bursting level.

"No one," Quistis replied, trying to turn back to her own lunch.

Selphie leaned across the table toward Zell. "The new instructor," she said conspiratorially.

"Gaviel?" Zell asked. He shrugged before taking a large bite out of one of his hot dogs. "He theemth okay," he said to Selphie around a mouthful of food.

"Oh, you've spoken to him?" Selphie was practically overflowing with excitement at this new development. "What's he like?"

Zell was oblivious to all of the attention he was suddenly getting from the females seated at the table. He dusted off his hands and swallowed hard before picking up another hot dog. "Like I said, he's cool."

Selphie made a face. "That's it?" She leaned over the table, shaking his arm. "Come on, Zell! Tell me about him... I want dirt!"

It took Zell two tries to free his arm from Selphie's determined grip; she could be really strong when she wanted to be. "Hey, leggo!"

Quistis looked at Selphie from over the rim of her glasses. She had once again taken to wearing her glasses, if for no other reason than to have some sort of control over their sometimes-rowdy clique. "Selphie..." Quistis warned quietly.

Selphie let go of Zell's arm and sat back down. She rolled her eyes and blew a big breath, ballooning her cheeks. "You're no fun."

Rinoa patted Selphie on the hand. "So how's Irvine doing?" Rinoa asked, turning the conversation to Selphie's other favorite topic in an effort to lighten her spirits. The younger girl immediately started to gush enthusiastically about Irvine's latest accomplishments.

While Rinoa and Selphie gossiped, Quistis glanced up and across the cafeteria, where her eyes fell once more on the newest addition to the Garden's staff. Much as she hated to admit it, Gaviel was attractive, with his dark complexion and strong, aristocratic features. More than once in the last week, she had found herself lingering in the halls outside his classes, waiting for the moment when the students would file out and she could sashay into Gaviel's class, maybe strike up a friendly conversation with him, and perhaps even ask him if he were free for something to eat. But she had yet to work up the nerve to do more than just stand in the hallway outside his classroom like some doe-eyed schoolgirl.

Zell polished off the hot dog that Selphie had almost prevented him from eating and looked up at the others, when suddenly he stopped, still hunched over his tray. Rinoa and Selphie were giggling softly about something (probably Squall or Irvine or both), but it was Quistis who grabbed his attention. He followed her wistful gaze across the room, where Gaviel was talking with some of the other instructors. He had never seen Quistis look so lost before; it reminded him that, despite her having been an instructor, she was the same age as the rest of them.

"He's pretty nice," Zell told Quistis.

Quistis blinked once and looked to Zell. "I'm sorry, Zell; did you say something?"

Zell cocked his head in the direction of the chatting instructors. "I said, he's pretty nice, you know. Gaviel, I mean."

Quistis chuckled softly, waving a hand dismissively, but her cheeks reddened enough for even Zell to realize that he had struck a nerve with her. "Oh, it's not that." She went back to picking at her salad. It was an empty gesture, but anything was better than having to look at Zell while he prodded her.

"You should go talk to him," Zell pressed. For some reason, he suddenly wanted Quistis to do something about this. He wanted her to... well, he wanted her to be happy.

Quistis felt her heart rate start to speed up, the same way it had every time she stood outside Gaviel's classroom; the same way it had when she had brought Squall to the balcony at the SeeD party; the same way it had every time she found herself in a one-on-one situation with a man she was attracted to. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves, but unfortunately, it made her voice catch in her throat when she next spoke. "Zell, please..."

"You won't know if you don't ask, right?" He started to get up, and reached for her hand. "Come on, let's go."

Quistis yanked her hand away from him, telling him, "No!" much more loudly than she had expected to. The surrounding tables fell silent, as did the group of instructors, whose ears were attuned to any sort of commotion. Quistis noted that Gaviel was looking straight at her, with a quizzical expression on his face.

Quistis turned away from Gaviel's gaze quickly, and made the mistake of looking at Zell. Catching the hurt look on his face, she covered her mouth with her hand and got up from the table in a rush. "Excuse me," she said quickly, turning and running for the door. She nearly bowled over Squall on her way out, muttering rushed apologies to him.

Selphie and Rinoa watched her go in dumb silence; Quistis had so very rarely ever lost her cool, it came as a substantial shock whenever she let her mask of control slip even just a little bit. They turned to Zell for an explanation, struck dumb for a second time in as many moments as they watched him stare after Quistis forlornly.

Rinoa touched Zell's hand lightly to get his attention. "What happened?" she asked softly.

Selphie wasn't quite so subdued. "What did you say to her?" she demanded, her girlish brow furrowed angrily.

"Nothing," Zell told her, still standing there.

Squall came over to their table, which was obviously the source of Quistis' frustrated and hasty exit. "What happened?" He echoed Rinoa's query.

Selphie pursed her lips. "That's what we're trying to figure out." She turned her stern gaze back on Zell. "You must have said something," she hissed.

Zell looked around the table for support. Squall was looking at him with one eyebrow cocked and his arms folded across his chest. Selphie was glaring at him. Rinoa's gaze was sympathetic, but even she was silent, waiting to hear his answer. Zell shrugged. "I just told her to go talk to Gaviel."

Squall narrowed his eyes. "So?"

Rinoa shook her head, muttering, "Oh, Zell..." while Selphie tore at her upturned hair. "Zell! How could you?"


Squall looked at the two young women. "What's the problem?"

Selphie shook her head. "Oh, brother." She looked back up at Zell, ignoring Squall for the moment. "Zell, go tell Quistis you're sorry."

"For what?" Squall asked.

Selphie spoke to Zell through clenched teeth, but she included Squall in her gaze. ""

Rinoa's eyes softened. "Zell, it's a very sensitive subject. Please, just apologize to Quistis. It will make her feel better."

Zell couldn't argue with Rinoa's soft-spoken reasoning. He left the table and went in search of Quistis without another word said.

Squall sat down across from Rinoa. "Was I supposed to understand any of that?"

Selphie blew a stray lock of hair from in front of her eyes, but Rinoa gave him her best smile. "It's nothing you need to worry about."

Squall shrugged. "Whatever," he muttered under his breath.


Part 2: Steam

Zell spent most of the next 20 minutes or so running all over the Garden, looking for Quistis. He went everywhere he thought a smart person would go: the Library; Doctor Kadowaki's office in the Infirmary; the Instructors' Classrooms (peeking his head into each of the darkened rooms and almost getting his block knocked off by Raijin, who was trying to make time with one of the cadets); even the Parking Area. He finally figured that she had probably gone to talk to Instructor Xu on the 3rd floor; even after Quistis' retirement from the classroom, she and Xu were still pretty close.

So it was with a sense of nonexistent purpose that Zell headed his own way, down to the Training Area, to burn off some steam. It always made him feel better to practice his fighting techniques and clobber some monsters at the same time.

There were a few cadets exiting the Training Area when he got there, looking a little worse for wear. As he passed them, Zell caught the words "T-Rexaur" come from one of them, and he chuckled inwardly to himself. Apparently, they hadn't learned yet that the best way to take care of a T-Rexaur--if you didn't have the strength or Guardian Force--was by using Sleep to your best advantage. Dumb T-Rexaurs, Zell thought. Still, if those two cadets hadn't been able to take it out, maybe the big brute was still walking around somewhere inside the area.

Zell pushed back his shoulders and strutted through the main gate. Sure enough, the tell-tale THUD-THUD-THUD of a charging T-Rexaur alerted Zell to just where he could find the challenge he was looking for.

He stepped into one of the clearings and saw the large red body of the T-Rexaur loom in front of him. He bounced on the balls of his feet and stretched his legs like he did before every fight, then took his fighting stance. Before he could get his Sleep spell ready, though, a burst of intense cold hit him peripherally, and he caught a glimpse of the Guardian Force Shiva hammering the T-Rexaur with ice. When Shiva was finished, Zell was a little surprised to see Quistis standing there. He was about to cheer her on when he noticed the T-Rexaur charging again.

"Quistis!" Zell shouted. She hadn't quite recovered from her Summoning Spell, and she was an easy target for the large monster. The T-Rexaur bore down on her, head low for its charge.

Quistis, focused completely on the fight, did her best to dive out of the way. Luckily, the attack the monster had received from Shiva had hurt its perceptions, and it only grazed her. She would consider herself lucky that the worst it did was push her forcefully to the ground, knocking the wind from her lungs and the glasses from her face. She staggered to her feet, holding her whip in front of her. Damn it, now she was pissed.

"Sleep..." Zell whispered to himself, as if she could hear him. Out of respect for her, he wouldn't step into her battle, unless it looked like she was in extreme danger. But Quistis was a capable fighter; hell, she had taught Squall how to fight, and Squall was the best fighter Zell knew.

Quistis struck the T-Rexaur with her whip, and the magic component of the weapon put the monster instantly to sleep. It stood there, snoring comically, while Quistis concentrated once more on her Shiva Summons. And once again, the Guardian Force appeared in her beautiful, powerful glory, battering the T-Rexaur with an onslaught of ice. When the ice cleared, the T-Rexaur groaned loudly and fell to the ground.

Zell whooped, running up to Quistis. "That was great!" he told her enthusiastically. There was nothing like a good battle to raise Zell's spirits.

Quistis just noticed him for the first time. "Zell. What are you doing here?" She dusted off her long skirt and tucked a lock of blonde hair behind her ear.

Zell's grin fell suddenly. "Oh. Uh, I came to... Well, I came to apologize. For...back there."

Quistis looked at him blankly for a moment, then smiled at him. It was a smile she used to reserve for her students, when she was still an instructor. She put a hand on his shoulder and said, "It's not really necessary; I know what you were trying to do. But, thank you anyway."

"I didn't mean to embarrass you," he reiterated.

"Really, Zell, that's all right." She bent to the ground and picked up her glasses, noting with disapproval and disappointment that they were now sufficiently bent at the junction. She sighed as she brushed the dirt from them. "Oh, well. That'll teach me not to wear these in the Training Area."

Zell held out his hand. "Hey, I could fix 'em for you."

Quistis blinked at him. "Really?"

Zell puffed up with pride. "Sure! I'm really good with things like that."

Quistis looked at the bent frame. "Well..."

"Please?" Zell was already reaching for them.

Quistis was touched by this gesture, so she smiled and placed the glasses in his hand. "All right." She tucked her whip into her belt and nodded toward the exit. "I think I should be going before something else breaks."

Zell grinned. "I guess I shouldn't carry these around in here, either," he said, indicating the glasses.

They both stood there for a long, silent moment, not knowing what to say or do. Finally, Quistis said, "Are you coming?"

Zell nodded. "Yeah. I guess I'll head down to the workshop to start on these."

Quistis stopped him in the corridor that led back to the main atrium. "If it's any trouble..."

"No trouble," Zell assured her quietly, stopping next to her. "I want to do this."

Quistis smiled. "Thank you."

"Sure." Zell resumed walking, turning when they got to the cavernous atrium. "I'll see you later." He waved, then ran off at normal Zell pace toward the workshops.

Quistis watched him for a moment, thinking of how sweet a kid he could be, when she realized that she had begun to think of Zell--and the others--as students, when they were all full-fledged SeeDs. Maybe being at Garden again, in this era of relative peace, was making her wistful for the days when she was still an instructor.

In a way, she missed it. She missed watching young men and women excel under her tutelage; they would arrive at Garden nervous or even scared cadets, and they would mature into intelligent and powerful SeeDs. She missed feeling that pride that came from watching her own students move quickly through the ranks, earning honors. She even missed the Trepists. Her little student fanclub had dissolved rather quickly after she had stopped being an instructor; she had become just another SeeD, no longer a mentor to them but their equal.

She was so deep in thought that she failed to notice Selphie coming from the opposite direction, waving excitedly, until the younger girl was nearly in front of her face.

"Quistis!" Selphie said, nearly breathless. "I've been looking all over for you!"

"Selphie, what is it?"

Selphie cocked her head, grinning from ear to ear. "Didn't you hear the announcement?"

"What announcement?" Quistis asked. She told Selphie, "I was in the Training Area." It had been a long-standing rule that only announcements of the utmost importance would ever sound in the Training Area, since there were real threats there. Sometimes the slightest distraction could mean the difference between injury and death to a cadet going through maneuvers.

Selphie was nearly gushing with excitement. "Headmaster Cid is going to chair some big presentation tonight, at the ballroom. All of the instructors are going to be there, even Gaviel!" She grabbed Quistis' arm and started pulling her toward the Parking Area.

"Selphie, what are you doing?"

"We're going to get you a dress for tonight, that's what we're doing! Now, come on!"

Quistis knew better than to try and deter Selphie from one of her little quests, so she let the girl drag her toward the Parking Area. Selphie had some favorite shops in nearby Balamb, and no doubt she was going to chaperone Quistis to each and every one of them. With a low chuckle, Quistis followed her. It was heartening to know that not much ever changed with Selphie, if no one else.


Part 3: Perception

Rinoa tugged gently on the hem of her creme dress, trying to straighten it. She and Squall had gotten romantically sidetracked on the walk to the ballroom, and though it had seemed like a good idea at the time, her dress was paying for it now. Still, if Irvine hadn't snuck up on them in their shadowed hall, making kissing noises at them, she might have had more than just a wrinkled dress to contend with.

When they had first arrived, Xu had grabbed Squall rather unceremoniously and hustled him off to talk with Cid before the ceremonies began. So Rinoa was currently standing near the door, waiting for someone else she knew to arrive. Irvine was there, of course, but without Selphie around, he took the opportunity to make himself charming to a bunch of uniformed cadets, who giggled and squealed like schoolgirls over him. Rinoa had to laugh at him, too; of all of the men at Garden, Irvine was certainly the most charming. The most conceited, too, but Rinoa had to forgive him that, just like she had to forgive Squall his faults.

She leaned up against the base of the marble statue and tilted her head back, looking up at the underbelly of the big lion. Unconsciously, she fingered the similar charm around her neck. She still wore the lion ring on a chain, the same one that she had asked Zell make for her, because she had liked the one that Squall had.

"They didn't start yet, did they?" someone whispered to her.

Rinoa turned to look at Selphie, who was dressed pertly in a dark blue skirt outfit that resembled nothing so much as her SeeD cadet uniform. "Not yet," Rinoa told her with a tiny smile.

"Good," Selphie giggled. "You can give us a supporting opinion."

Rinoa followed Selphie out into the hallway, where Quistis was waiting. The blonde SeeD was quietly fidgeting, dressed in a long, pale green dress that hugged her every curve. Rinoa was a little surprised by how regal Quistis looked; Rinoa knew that Quistis was beautiful, but she wasn't aware that the former instructor could look so... stunning. "Quistis..." Rinoa began.

"It is a bit much, isn't it?" Quistis said with a tiny smile, brushing a wrinkle from her leg. "Especially for such a simple gathering."

"Don't be silly," Selphie assured her. "Everyone in there is dressed up. Right, Rinoa?"

Rinoa nodded. "Yes. Xu even made Squall wear his dress uniform tonight."

Selphie chuckled. "See? I bet a certain someone won't be able to take his eyes off you tonight." She grabbed Quistis' hand and tugged gently. "Now come on. We don't want to miss anything." She pulled Quistis after her into the large ballroom.

Selphie took only three steps into the room before her gaze settled on Irvine, who was still cavorting good-naturedly with some of the younger female cadets. Instantly, she let go of Quistis and stalked over to him, yanking him upright by one of his ears. Rinoa heard the word "Behave" come from Selphie, and then Irvine straightened up gallantly, tipping his cowboy hat to her. His eyes came to fall on her and Quistis, and instantly his brows went up. He strode over to the two women with his trademark swagger that left the young cadets giggling.

Irvine smiled that ladykiller smile of his and bent low at the waist in front of the two women, his hat held to his chest. "Ladies." When he came up, he chucked Rinoa gently under her chin. "I don't know how Squall could let you out of his sight tonight, Miss Rinoa," he drawled playfully. Then he turned to Quistis. "And Miss Trepe! Why, I do believe I might swoon from your beauty." He fanned his face with the brim of his hat.

"Ir-vi-ine," Selphie cooed, rolling her eyes. She looked around, then pointed to the stage. "Oh, look! There's Headmaster Cid now. Let's go!"

The four of them walked down the steps to the ballroom floor, Selphie hanging on Irvine's arm, Rinoa and Quistis walking side by side, chatting softly. Squall met them at the bottom of the stairs, and Rinoa took his arm with both hands, enjoying his closeness. They walked to the foot of the stage, looking up at Cid with Matron by his side. Quistis moved slightly off to the side, her eyes drifting over the crowd as Cid began to speak.

Quistis listened intently to the beginning of Cid's speech, which had to do with the prosperity that Garden was currently enjoying. But then her eyes fell on Gaviel, who was standing tall in the line of instructors off to one side of the stage. His black hair was combed back, and it shone almost as much as his polished dress boots. He was looking at Cid, but at some point his gaze drifted over the crowd of SeeDs and cadets, and his eyes met Quistis'. She drowned in those dark eyes, unable to look away.

The rest of Cid's speech faded as she studied Gaviel, the way he stood, the way his eyes blinked slowly at her, the way his lips seemed to curl into a smile just for her. Quistis felt herself reeling under his gaze. Suddenly he turned away from her, and she realized that Cid's speech had ended, and everyone was applauding enthusiastically. She shook her head and turned her attention back to the headmaster and joined in the applause, hoping that no one had noticed her lapse.

Cid smiled out over the crowd. "This night is for all of you. Enjoy yourselves!"

The group of mostly SeeDs cheered, then turned to their own cliques as Cid and Matron retired from the stage. Quistis looked around for Rinoa and Squall, and saw that they had begun to move across the dance floor to their favored balcony. And Selphie and Irvine were already dancing hand-in-hand, which left Quistis alone. She spied Gaviel and some of the other instructors coming down from the stage, talking with Cid and Matron. She took a step forward, and then she noticed that Gaviel had noticed her, as well. Despite herself, she turned abruptly around, and found herself nearly in Zell's arms.

"Quistis," Zell said happily. He took a step back and handed her a small plastic case. "Here, good as new."

Quistis took the case and opened it, and inside were her glasses. True to his word, they looked perfect; had she not known, Quistis would never have been able to tell that they'd ever been broken. "Thank you, Zell," Quistis said with a smile.

Zell blushed a little above his nose. "You look really nice."

Now it was Quistis' turn to blush. She tried to wave away the comment. "This is Selphie's doing, of course."

"Heh. Yeah. The little planner." He shrugged. "Well, I should get going."

Quistis took his hand. "Do you have to? I mean, it's a party. And being with a friend would ease my nerves."

Zell cocked his head at her. Quistis nervous? That didn't seem likely, but she seemed awfully sincere about the whole thing. He nodded. "Sure."

Quistis indicated one of the small party tables along the side of the giant room. "Do you mind if we sit down? I've never gotten used to heels." She walked over to the table and sat down, with Zell next to her.

"What are you so nervous about?" Zell asked plainly. "You're usually so cool and with it."

Quistis shook her head. "Am I? Sometimes I feel like I'm running in circles. Like I don't even know myself." She looked up and let her eyes drift across the crowd. They rested on Squall and Rinoa, who were looking out over Balamb's plain from their balcony perch. Then they found Selphie and Irvine, laughing as they glided across the dance floor. They watched Cid and Matron chatting softly with some of the SeeDs. Gaviel was there, too, as were Xu, Needa, and some of the instructors that she used to talk with when she was still a teacher.

Quistis sighed. "I spent so much time trying to figure out everyone else - Squall, Seifer, Matron - but I never figured out who I was. Student, teacher, SeeD... Which one is the right one?" Her voice had dropped to a barely audible whisper; she was talking only to herself. "No one can know me before I know myself. Until then, I'm alone."

Zell had been leaning in close to her, trying to hear her over the constant din of the surrounding party. He had missed part of it, but he had caught the very last part. "You're not alone," he told her gently. He touched her wrist. "Quistis." He waited for her to look at him, then repeated, very seriously: "You're not alone."

Quistis focused on Zell, the frightened little boy that she had known as a child grown into a strong and capable young man. Like Squall, Selphie, and the others, Zell was part of her past, but part of her present, too. The friendships forged on the Ultimecia mission were what helped them all to survive. Since then, duty and responsibility had been pulling them apart, to the point that Quistis had thought that things would never be the same again; but as she looked into Zell's pale eyes, she realized that the same bond that they had had as children was with them still, and it would always be with them.

Quistis put her other hand over his and squeezed, smiling with her eyes as well as her lips. They sat there in silence, until a shadow drifted across the table. Quistis and Zell looked up, and they were both a little surprised to see Gaviel and Xu there.

Xu, ever the officer, indicated the pair. "Instructor Zinn, this is Quistis Trepe and Zell Dincht, the SeeDs from the sorceress mission."

Gaviel bowed to them both. When he spoke, his voice was rich and deep, and it sent tiny shivers down Quistis' spine. "Of course. I've heard so much about both of you."

Xu smiled. "Quistis used to be one of our instructors, but we lost her shortly before the sorceress incident."

Gaviel smiled, too, a gentle curve of the lips. "The lure of being a SeeD is tempting." He looked straight at Quistis. "Miss Trepe, I hate to interrupt you, but would you be willing to grant me a dance?"

Quistis felt the color rise in her cheeks. Beside her, Zell was grinning like a fool, and even Xu was trying hard to keep a straight face. As for herself, it was all she could do to murmur, "Of course." She stood up, her dress falling gracefully about her legs, and she took the offer of his hand.

"Lovely," Gaviel said quietly, although Quistis couldn't be sure if he was talking about the situation or her. She decided it really didn't matter.

Quistis drifted off into the crowd with him, feeling as though she were floating. They danced through one movement, then another, and a third, and they kept dancing until Quistis lost count and all sense of time. Before she knew it, the band was closing up, and the party had dwindled to just a few stragglers. She and Gaviel parted ways on the dance floor, but not before he lightly kissed the back of her hand and promised her tomorrow.

Quistis watched him go, off to the upper level dormitories that housed the instructors and SeeDs. Then she moved back to the table, where she found her glasses case, and beside that, a rose and a quickly-scrawled note on a napkin that read:

Beautiful. Good luck!

Quistis brought the rose to her face and inhaled deeply, assured that she was not alone, after all.


Part 4: In My Sights

Irvine Kinneas wrapped the rubber band around his hand and made a clicking sound in the back of his throat. He stared down his extended index finger, much as he would stare down a rifle sight. He silently picked off a pair of students as they sat by the entrance, then did the same to an instructor that was rushing through the turnstile. He brought his hand up close to his ear, as he would a gun, and looked around for a new target. As he was sorting through potential victims, he noticed Quistis walking onto the Garden grounds, holding hands and talking happily with Gaviel Zinn, one of the instructors.

Irvine thought idly that they looked good as a pair, at least aesthetically speaking. Quistis' fair beauty contrasted well with Gaviel's dark looks. They didn't look as gorgeous as Irvine would have looked with Quistis on his arm, or Selphie or Rinoa, but they did look good. He watched the pair as he unravelled the rubber band gun from his fingers, pocketing the makeshift toy, and leaned against the railing.

All around the courtyard, Irvine heard the telltale chime for the next classes. He saw Gaviel look up in surprise, then rush off, waving behind him at Quistis, who waved back, smiling all the while. Irvine gave Gaviel a relaxed two-finger salute as the instructor ran past him into the Garden; obviously, someone was a little late for class.

Quistis walked slowly up the steps to where Irvine was slouched against his railing. She nodded to him. "Good afternoon, Irvine. Are you waiting for someone?"

Irvine shrugged. "Not really." He grinned. "You seem happy."

Quistis sighed, indicating the bright, cloudless sky above. "It's a beautiful day. Why shouldn't I be happy?"

Irvine snickered. "I've never seen you so dreamy, Quisty."

Quistis covered her mouth with her hand, stifling a chuckle. Irvine still had the unique talent of bringing out the girl in her. She figured it was the way he never seemed to take anything too seriously. His lackadaisical attitude was catching. "You'll pardon me if I keep my own counsel," she told him, recovering some of her tight-lipped dignity.

Irvine lowered his head, looking at her slyly. "You and Instructor Zinn seem to be getting awfully friendly."

Quistis smiled. "Subtlety never was your strong point, Irvine." She brushed past him, moving into the Garden proper, and he followed her like a puppy wanting attention. "But, if you must know, Gaviel and I share many similar interests." She walked leisurely down the hallway, deliberately slowing her pace to enjoy the scenery, and to see how patient Irvine could be. "Did you know he used to be a Trabia SeeD?"

Irvine snickered. "That should make Selphie happy."

"Yes. And he took great part in the effort to rebuild the Garden there."

"Why doesn't he teach there? It'd make more sense."

Quistis paused, lowering her eyes to the ground. "There's been some talk of that."

Irvine suddenly, silently cursed himself. "Uh, sorry about that, Quistis. I didn't mean any-"

"That's perfectly all right." She stopped beneath one of the trees, fingering a dangling leaf. "We all have to go where we're most needed. Gaviel understands that as well as I do, or you, or anyone. And some things are beyond our control."

Irvine eyed her intently. There was something she wasn't saying, although, for the life of him, he didn't know what it could be. Something about the way that she moved, the way that the spark that was so evident when she spoke of Zinn disappeared when the conversation turned to amorphous things like "duty" and "responsibility." It was like she was an instructor and he was just a student, or she was bossy Quisty and he was rambunctious little Irvy again.

Quistis shook her head. "Oh, what am I talking about? Like I said, it's too lovely a day to be thinking maudlin thoughts." She turned her mind to lighter matters, in an attempt to change the subject. "I'm afraid I haven't been around much lately." The image of a charming afternoon lunch with Gaviel on the Garden grounds made her smile to herself. "How is everyone?"

Irvine snickered. "Well, you know Selphie. She's been busying herself with the spring festival. She loves having all those cadets following her orders. It's coming together pretty well. Rinoa's been helping her, too. Seems she has some background in those kinds of things. Squall's the same as always. Doesn't talk much."

Quistis nodded, thinking that it was good that Selphie and Rinoa found each other to confide in. Secretly, Quistis knew that neither Irvine nor Squall was very good at keeping up with the things that females found interesting. Selphie finding Irvine and Rinoa having Squall were good things, though; of that much, she was certain. It used to make her feel a little lonely for a confidante.

"What about Zell?" Quistis asked suddenly, thinking of the last member of their little clique.

Irvine scratched his head, tilting his hat a little as he did so. "Ah, you know how Zell is. He comes and goes."

Quistis took her glasses off, setting them in her hands. She looked at the delicate frames, reminded of how sweet it was of Zell to fix them for her. She smiled a little to herself.


Quistis looked up at Irvine, and smiled again. She patted him lightly on the cheek. "Enjoy the day, Irvine. It's too short not to." Then she walked away, back into the Garden, leaving Irvine to stare after her.

Quistis wandered the halls of Garden for a while, stopping in the library to glance over some book spines, but she wasn't all that interested in reading. She glanced into the cafeteria, noting that it was bustling even for midday; students and SeeDs were crowding the tables, studying or socializing. She saw Selphie and Rinoa in one corner, with a crowd of cadets around them, laughing and looking at plans, but she decided not to bother them.

Suddenly, a crowd of students pushed past her from behind, and she realized that classes must have let out for this session. That would mean that Gaviel was free once again. She thought that perhaps a trip into Balamb would be a good excursion for later in the day, and she wanted to know if he would like to accompany her. She slipped out of the cafeteria and walked toward the classrooms, humming softly to herself.

When Quistis came to Gaviel's classroom, the door was closed. It was unlikely that he would have closed up the room so quickly after his students left, especially since this was his last class of the afternoon. She was about to open the door when she heard muffled voices coming from inside the classroom. She stepped back, not wanting to eavesdrop. She waited for a moment, hearing the voices but not the words. She was about to give it up and look for Gaviel later, when the classroom door opened, and Xu stepped out, a folder of papers in her hand.

Xu looked surprised to see her. "Oh, Quistis! I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were out here."

"That's all right," Quistis assured her. But there was some anxiety in Xu's features, so she asked, "Is there something the matter? Has something happened?"

"No, no," Xu answered, strangely business-like. "Nothing to worry about." She glanced at her chronometer and nodded apologetically. "If you'll excuse me, I have to get to a meeting."

"Of course," Quistis said softly, watching the other woman go. She peeked into the classroom, where Gaviel was cleaning up his notes. "Gaviel?"

He looked up, his face brightening. "Quistis! Come in, please. I'm almost finished here, just a few more things to pack up."

She smiled, but haltingly. "That's all right. I was wondering, if you would like to join me for dinner tonight. There's a lovely cafe in Balamb..."

Gaviel seemed to stop and think for a moment, then nodded. "I would enjoy that very much. I have to clear these things up...perhaps I could meet you at the entrance later? In an hour?"

Quistis nodded. "That would be perfect." She stood there awkwardly, not knowing quite what to do next. Finally, she just waved to him and stepped toward the door. "In an hour, then."

Gaviel smiled at her. "I'll be there." He favored her with a long look, then turned back to collecting his notes.

Quistis walked quickly to the Barracks, feeling oddly flushed and excited. When she arrived at her quarters, she went about tidying herself in an unfocused, dreamy manner. She watched in the mirror as she brushed her hair and straightened her clothes, all the while feeling as though she were somewhere else, as if she were floating, almost. The hour went by too slowly and too quickly at the same time.

True to his word, Gaviel was waiting for her at the entrance gate. He had changed to more informal attire, so that he looked more like an off-duty SeeD than an instructor. Quistis liked the look just the same.

"I thought we could walk," Gaviel said, after taking her hand. "Balamb's not far, and we can talk." They passed out of the gates, and there was a tense silence between them for several minutes. Then, his face darkening a little, Gaviel said softly, "Quistis, there's something I have to tell you."

She stared into his face, searching his eyes. But then, suddenly, a large shape loomed up behind him, and she pushed him to the ground, shouting, "Look out!"

Swooping from above, a large, vulture-like animal screeched loudly at them. It came down again hard and fast, only just missing them as they rolled out of the way. Like the two well-trained SeeDs they were, Quistis and Gaviel came up from their rolls flanking the creature and in battle stances.

Quistis reached to her belt, and felt her stomach sink when she realized she had left her whip in her quarters. "No weapon!" she called to Gaviel.

"Slow!" Gaviel shouted. He was reaching for his own weapon, but it would take time for him to draw it, time that they might or might not have.

Quistis called a cast up from memory and Slowed the creature, and it turned to her. Her mind raced for the correct incantation for a wind spell, but before she could cast it, Gaviel's bola wound itself tightly around the creature, and the two weights on the ends knocked the creature senseless. It fell to the ground, squawking once in irritation before hobbling away from them.

Gaviel ran over to Quistis, and they both watched the creature stumble away, still caught up in Gaviel's bola. He said, "Apparently, it's not that desperate for dinner. But let's not wait around for it to get loose." He pointed to the Balamb gateway, which was now only a short run away.

They made it safely to the Balamb gates, though they were both out of breath when they got there. Part of it was the run, most of it was the excitement.

"Wait," Gaviel said, one hand on his knee. "I need to...catch my breath."

Quistis couldn't believe she was nearly laughing, giddy from the brief fight. "Are you all right?" She put a hand on his shoulder, looking at his flushed face. He smiled at her. Before she could stop herself, she leaned forward and kissed him, quickly.

Gaviel straightened, a look of surprise on his face. "Quistis..."

She lowered her eyes. "Should I not have done that? It felt right." She looked back up at him again.

"Quistis, I can't do this."

"It doesn't feel right to you?"

"It isn't that. It's something else."

"What? Is there something wrong? Is there something wrong with us? It's not like I'm your student."

"No, Quistis, it's not that at all."

An image sprung to her mind. "Is it Xu?"

Gaviel looked at her quizzically. "What?"

"Is it Xu? Is that why she was at your class?"

Gaviel shook his head, taking her shoulders in his hands. "Quistis." He paused. "I've been reassigned. To Trabia. I leave in two days." He added softly, "I'm sorry."

Quistis stopped, silently admonishing herself for thinking all of those crazy thoughts about Xu.

Trabia. The mountain Garden. Two days. Only two days.

She touched his face, looked deep into his eyes. Then, she said: "Don't be sorry." Her fingers brushed over his lips, and though she fought to keep her voice even, she smiled at him. "It's a beautiful night. I want to enjoy it. I want to enjoy it with you." She stepped back from him, extending a hand to him and bowing slightly at the waist. "Mister Zinn, would you do me the honor of having dinner with me tonight?"

Gaviel stared at her, silently marvelling at her strength, her beauty, and her grace. He took her hand. "Of course."

They stepped into Balamb together, hand-in-hand, each of them glad for the other's company.


Part 5: Strength

Squall Leonhart lay back on his bed and watched the early morning sunlight stream in through his window. Beside him, Rinoa dozed, her breath light and warm against his chest. When they had first started sharing a bed, they would wake up together and watch the sun rise in appreciative silence. She had told him that his kisses were all the more sweet when they were the first thing she felt in the morning, which made him smile, an infrequent occurrence even at the best of times.

Lately, Rinoa had favored the allure of sleep to waking up at dawn, but Squall still enjoyed the private ritual. He appreciated the silence; it gave him time to think. Since the Ultimecia mission, Headmaster Cid and Instructor Xu had tried to coax him into the spotlight of leadership, saying that he was a natural commander, but Squall was indifferent to it all. SeeD he was, and SeeD he would remain, the girl beside him not the least of the reasons for his choice.

Rinoa had accepted her role as sorceress; though it had at first seemed that that would be her undoing, in the time that followed that fateful mission, it had come to mean less and less to everyone, until most people just forgot. Squall would always remember, though. It was why he still fought off Xu's attempts to get him to be the Garden's commander. If he were in such a position, how much of his life would be taken up with stately nonsense? Perhaps not all at once, but it would happen. He wanted to spend as much of his life as he could next to Rinoa; he had promised to be her knight, and if he never kept any other promise in his life, he would keep that one. Besides, even when he was still a student, Quistis had often told him that, though his skills as a fighter couldn't be denied, he was a terrible diplomat.

Being careful not to stir Rinoa, Squall sighed and sat up, to look out the window.

His thoughts of Quistis led him to consider her current predicament. Squall often wondered if she were truly happy being just a SeeD again, and not an instructor. He would have to have been blind not to have noticed how Quistis looked after that one instructor, Gaviel Zinn. By the same token, Gaviel's eyes often followed the blonde SeeD across the Garden grounds; Xu and some of the other instructors couldn't stop talking about it. Squall wondered how Quistis was taking Gaviel's recent re-assignment to the Trabia Garden.

As if on cue, his perusal of the grounds outside his window led his eyes to fall on Quistis Trepe, sitting alone on a courtyard bench.

Squall turned back to Rinoa, who had rolled over onto her other side and was now curled up in the blanket. He leaned over her shoulder and kissed her softly on the cheek. She smiled in her sleep and then snuggled deeper into the blanket. Squall let his eyes linger on her for a moment more, and then he dressed and left her to her dreams.

It wasn't difficult to find Quistis again: she was one of less than a dozen people milling around the courtyard; dawn was not a favorite time for most SeeDs or cadets. He stood next to her for several moments, without saying anything, until she looked up at him.

"Squall." Quistis said simply. Her face was calm; a little too calm, Squall thought. She indicated the space on the bench beside her. "Would you like to sit down?"

Squall acquiesced, looking out over the few milling strangers. He waited a moment, then asked, "How are you?"

Quistis looked down at her hands, which were clasped in her lap. "Fine. I'm fine. The entire Garden has been in upheaval these last few days; I think most people are excited about Trabia Garden being re-commissioned." She stole a glance at him, to see his reaction, but there was none. She continued: "I was surprised that Selphie decided to stay here and not transfer to Trabia."

Squall shrugged. "Irvine's here."

"Yes, I suppose that would keep her here." She chuckled to herself. "Someone has to keep him out of trouble."

"How is Zinn?"

Quistis paused, not quite sure how to answer him. Squall was not usually one to concern himself with the affairs of others. Still, his silent manner was compelling; she found herself talking before she knew what words were going to come out. "Getting settled at Trabia. He says there are so many young cadets; they're so full of life and promise and strength. Like we were when we started."

Squall said, softly, "You've always been strong."

Quistis looked straight at him, but he was still watching the courtyard. He had a tendency to just blurt out such statements, non sequiturs that kept everyone guessing about what he was thinking. Even after all the years that she'd known him, she still didn't know how his mind worked. She could guess sometimes, but she never really knew. The same held true now. "What?" she asked, as if she hadn't heard him.

Squall knew perfectly well that she had heard him. Still, he humored her query. "It's not like you to brood."

"I'm not -" Quistis began to protest, but Squall cut her off.

"You're too strong for that. I've always admired you for it."

Quistis blinked once, twice. "You have?" she murmured.

Squall's eyes roamed over the waking Garden. He spoke as though she hadn't said a word. "But it takes more than just strength. You have to forgive."

"Forgive who? For what?" She wasn't following him.

Squall looked down at the lion ring he wore, whose twin Rinoa still wore around her neck. Rinoa, his whole world. "Time," he said softly. "Circumstance." He clenched a fist, then opened it again, to look once more at the ring. "Fate." He paused, then added, "You can't predict everything."

Quistis found herself bubbling with a sudden, irrational anger. "I suppose some of us just weren't meant to be happy, is that it? Not like you and Rinoa."

Squall stood, and he finally turned to look at her. His piercing eyes seemed to look through her, but there was no anger there, nor was there volume added to his voice. Instead, he said quietly, "This isn't about me." Then, he turned and walked away leisurely.

Quistis watched him go for a moment, then, cursing herself, she got up and started after him. "Squall, wait!"

He turned around, hands in his pockets, and regarded her coolly.

"I'm sorry," Quistis blurted, feeling as though she should say something or he would walk off again. "I don't know why I said that. I've been...out of sorts lately. It's hard being alone."

"You aren't alone," Squall told her gently, echoing Zell's sentiment of only a few weeks before. The hint of a smile graced his normally sullen features. "We're always with you."

Quistis blushed, averting her eyes. "Part of me knows it's silly. But sometimes I feel like a stranger to everyone. And then Gaviel came, and everything was...different. Gaviel and I, we..."

"Quistis! Hey, Quistis!"

Both Squall and Quistis looked up to see Zell running toward them, waving his arms enthusiastically and shouting Quistis' name. Several SeeDs glared at him for making so much noise first thing in the morning, but he rushed past them, to grab Quistis by the arm excitedly.

"Come on!" Zell said quickly, tugging her arm in the direction of the entrance.

She had time enough only to look at Squall quizzically before being dragged away. "Um..."

"Go on," Squall said. He watched her try to keep up with Zell, and he muttered after her, "It's all right."

After a good minute, Quistis put her foot down. "Zell, slow down!" She hadn't been prepared for an early-morning run, much less one at Zell's wired pace. "What's so important this early in the morning?"

Zell put on his best little-boy look and grinned at her coaxingly. "It's a surprise."

Quistis shook her head a little. "I'm not so sure I want a surprise today," she told him, but he was still walking toward the entrance, so she followed him, at a more controlled pace. Still, his good nature was catching, and she found herself smiling at him as they walked.

"You've been so sad lately. Ever since Zinn left for Trabia. But this should cheer you up."

She wasn't quite sure what to expect from him; Zell could be pretty incomprehensible sometimes. Nevertheless, she let him lead her on, to the entranceway to the Garden. There was nothing different about it so far as she could see, but Zell was obviously excited about something. He ran to the turnstile operator and spoke a few quick words with him, and the other man handed over a large, rectangular box of something. Zell thanked him and rushed the box over to Quistis immediately.

"Open it," Zell pressed, shoving the box into her arms. It was an unceremonious gesture, but filled with the boyish energy he was known for. Quistis couldn't help but comply.

The box was white and simple-looking, though there was a mauve ribbon wrapped around it, securing the top to the bottom. Quistis pulled at the ribbon, gathering it in one hand as she held the box with the other. She lifted the top open and was immediately greeted with the pleasant fragrance of flowers. On closer inspection, they were long-stemmed mountain wildflowers. Trabian wildflowers.

"Aren't they pretty?" Zell asked, acting like a puppy wanting attention.

"They're beautiful," Quistis agreed quietly. "Wherever did you get them?"

Zell grinned. "I didn't. Gaviel sent them. See the note?" He poked an arm in among the flowers, indicating a piece of paper.

Quistis opened the little card, reading what had been written there: Thinking of you. Zinn. Her eyes ran over those four words again and again, a little puzzled why Gaviel would sign his name "Zinn." Surely, they were more familiar with each other than that. Ever since that first night, they had always called each other by their first names. The only ones who ever called him Zinn were his students, and the other SeeDs.

Zell's smile faded as he watched her become contemplative. "Quistis? Everything's better now, right?"

She looked up at him, struck by the concern on his face. Squall's words came back to her - We're always with you - and she began to understand. Of course Gaviel would never sign anything "Zinn." But Zell would, or Selphie, or whoever had thought of this. Suddenly, she felt the tears come, happy tears at having these friends to share her pains and her joys.

At seeing her eyes brim, Zell said, a little more urgently this time: "Right? Everything's better now?"

She laughed, to calm him, and she found that it lightened her spirits profoundly. She smiled at him, patting his cheek. "Everything's fine, Zell. Everything's wonderful." She pulled him back toward the Garden, holding the box of flowers close to her as she walked with her friend.